Trio of productions mix dance with theater

Asked about the difference between musicals and opera, Stephen Sondheim once gave a pithy answer at the National Theater: “The audience.”

What operagoers and tuner buffs expect from a show is, he argues, vastly different. Expectations surrounding theater and dance are just as divided. Or are they? Three recent London productions have intriguingly blurred the boundaries.

Plays are, by and large, “by” a playwright; dance pieces tend to be “by” a choreographer. But authorship of the emotionally controlled and eloquent “I Am Falling” at Notting Hill’s tiny Gate Theater begs the vexing question: Is it dance or theater?

A beautifully distilled piece about a son recounting the double suicide of his beloved parents, the show uses text, but credits no writer. It moves back and forth through a scenario, making perfect dramatic sense, but it isn’t a play. It contrasts repeated spoken phrases with similarly structured movement patterns but is more than “pure” choreography.

The program describes “I Am Falling” as “a dance theater collaboration,” a term that usually borders on the pretentious. In fact, there’s no better way to describe this tiny, 40-minute unclassifiable jewel from a superbly indivisible cast of three and their creative team. Unfair though it is to single anyone out, Katharine Williams’ startlingly atmospheric lighting is out of all proportion to her economy of means.

Helmer Carrie Cracknell took up the reins as the Gate’s joint artistic director last year alongside Natalie Abrahami. Upon their appointment, Abrahami commissioned French performer-choreographer Pierre Rigal to create a solo show for the theater. The equally unclassifiable yet theatrically powerful “Press” is the outstanding result.

What do you do when you’re commissioned to make a piece in a space smaller than many people’s living rooms? Make it even smaller. Rigal and designer Frederic Stoll create a pale gray box barely taller than Rigal, in which the dancer alternates between chilly robotics and slamming about as if magnetized to the walls.

Gradually, the performer’s relationship with a remote-controlled, constantly re-angling light turns nasty. And then, disturbingly, the ceiling begins to lower and press down upon him. A horrifying cross between Beckett’s “Play,” in which a light beam controls three characters in purgatory — Abrahami directed a production in 2005 — and Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,” the piece turns thrillingly in a faceless struggle to the death.

Compare that with “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other” at the National Theater. Peter Handke’s 1992 play has no dialogue, but it does have acting roles — 450 of them.

In Handke’s heightened re-imagining of an afternoon spent people-watching in an Italian square, he underlines the unconnected nature of people’s adjacent lives. In James Macdonald’s bravura staging, designer Hildegard Bechtler and lighting designer Jean Kalman give the square the eerie solidity of a Giorgio de Chirico painting. Macdonald fills it with the controlled comings and goings of 27 actors who, backstage, are racing in and out of literally hundreds of Moritz Junge’s costumes.

Its finest moments recall Jacques Tati, whose camera, in films like “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” appears to wander randomly among people innocently going about their absurd business.

But Tati’s genius lay in making contrived comedy appear artless. By contrast, Handke’s experiment in randomness feels increasingly studied.

Viewed as dance — contemporary choreographer Jonathan Burrowes is onboard — the piece has definite formal grace. As theater, however, its evenness of pace slips dangerously close to monotony. Crassly literal though it is to say so, the clue may be in the title. It’s supposed to be “The Hour …. ” At 100 minutes, patience is stretched to breaking point.

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